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Dieselgate: Does it affect motorhomes?

We’ve received multiple inquiries in the last few years asking if the Dieselgate scandal includes any RVs. After numerous phone calls and a lot of research we’ll tell you what we know for sure –as of now.

Diesel engines are a big part of the RV experience. For those considering a motorhome, it’s not a stretch to say that the biggest decision they face is gas power or diesel power. Briefly (this is covered in much more detail in the Motorhome Comparison Guide), gas engines are less expensive but tend to require more frequent service, are less durable and provide noticeably lower MPG. Diesel engines last virtually forever, are amenable to abuse, have fewer moving parts than their gas counterparts, and can prove to be less expensive over the long haul –assuming you travel enough miles annually to justify the higher cost of entry. On the other hand, there has also been the longstanding belief that diesel is dirtier than gas power, famously smoky, and prone to spewing pollutants like a bulldozer on its’ last legs.

And then “clean diesel” appeared, courtesy of Volkswagen and then Mercedes and others. Clean diesel employed a complicated system of air scrubbers and exhaust neutralizers that purified exhaust fumes of contaminants before they reached the end of the tailpipe. Suddenly, for the first time ever, diesel was the green choice. With the smoky and pollutant spewing drawback seemingly addressed, diesel sales exploded in North America (it has always been popular in Europe), employed in passenger cars, motorhomes and long haul tractor trailers.

Unfortunately, all was not as it appeared. For those who don’t know the tale, a small group of college kids from West Virginia University discovered that tailpipe emissions of Volkswagen diesel cars were as clean as advertised when the vehicle was tested in a lab environment but, when they tried the same test in an actual on-the-road scenario, emissions went through the roof. For months, the students assumed they were doing something wrong. They checked and re-checked their testing equipment and even reached out to Volkswagen itself for guidance. When contacted, VW knew exactly why the students were finding results that didn’t make sense. Their diesel engines were outfitted with “defeat devices” that sensed when a car was being tested in a lab and switched itself to an eco-mode that produced stellar emission results during the test. Also able to sense when it was on the road, the default device would shut down the emissions cleaning system and deliver a car that ran beautifully but dumped up to 40 timesthe advertised pollutants in to the atmosphere. 

Horrified that the students had stumbled on to their deception (no one tested emissions on the road at the time; all tests were performed in labs), VW responded with as much misleading and evasive “assistance” as they could muster. Luckily, the team from WVU also sought input from other sources and it wasn’t long before the jig was up: Volkswagen’s clean diesel was a farce.

Fast forward to today and the damage to VW has been catastrophic, estimated to have cost them in excess of $20 billion dollars –and counting. The number of vehicles outfitted with the defeat device has been tallied at a staggering 11,000,000 from the years 2009-2015. 

Pontiac Silverdome parking lot: A portion of the vehicles that Volkswagen has bought back.

Initially, VW tried to escape with a software patch to defeat the defeat device. Unfortunately, the fix addressed the emission issue –partly- but resulted in cars that didn’t run very well and gulped fuel. At some point, VW threw in the towel and offered to buy back any affected cars in North America if owners wanted to return them. The response was overwhelming and VW is once again the owner of 350,000 nearly new cars that they sold once but can’t sell again. While the company tries to figure out what to do with these pariah vehicles, they are being stored at a few key locations around the U.S., most famously the parking lot of the now demolished Pontiac 

In keeping with their newly unveiled creepy corporate culture, the executives at Volkswagen first tried to blame a handful of middle managers and engineers, implying a rogue software department. Not surprisingly, this group wasn’t willing to act as scapegoats for a crime of this magnitude and released an avalanche of records and e-mails showing the deception began at the top and worked its way downward. Heads began to roll, finally going all the way to ex-CEO Martin Winterkorn, who was recently hauled in to a German court and now faces up to 20 years in prison. The mood in Germany and abroad implies that he won’t escape with a mere slap on the wrist, either.

So now that you’re up to speed, let us return to the question at hand: Is your motorhome (or a motorhome you are considering) hiding a defeat device?

Well, it’s no secret that today’s diesel motorhomes have been outfitted with the same sort of exhaust-scrubbing devices as Volkswagen’s vehicles in an attempt to meet tougher emissions standards. What’s not known is if this includes defeat devices, as well. The biggest suppliers of diesel power for motorhomes are Cummins and Mercedes. As of now, there has been no claims of deception for their motorhome diesels, but Cummins is now battling a defeat device scandal of their own involving their diesel engines used in some pick-up trucks, and the Mercedes name has been bandied about for several years as possibly guilty of some sort of diesel shenanigans.

So, as of now, we are saying that Dieselgate does notaffect the motorhome industry. Further, considering the attention that the VW scandal has garnered, we are starting to think that any obvious smoking gun involving the motorhome industry would have been uncovered by now. That’s obviously good news, but, as you probably expected, we have to leave you with a caveat: the tendrils of this deception began with Volkswagen but have continued to expand, dragging in Peugeot, Fiat, Chrysler, and now, to some extent, Cummins. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that a defeat device on a motorhome diesel could come to light at some point.

Understanding that we’re being a bit less than reassuring here, what do you, today’s RV buyer, do if you’re in the market for a motorhome? We propose doing your research*, and if a diesel meets your needs, don’t hesitate to make an offer. As of now, there’s smoke, but no fire. Also, with the focus on diesel engines these days, a manufacturer would have to out of their mind to still be employing a defeat device.   

*As some of you may know, we like to reward those readers who stay for the entire discussion. This week we can help with the research by offering a 25% discount off any book or package on our Motorhome Comparison Guide page. Just use coupon code Diesel25 during check out. 

That’s it for this week. Check those tire pressures before hitting the road and enjoy the spring weather.

Happy Travels,

The Team